Here’s How to Tell if it’s Just Stress, or If You’re Actually Dealing With an Anxiety Disorder

It’s normal to experience stress or anxiety every once in a while. People often feel nervous in situations like starting a new job, taking a big test, etc. However, it’s important to be able to distinguish between whether you’re experiencing stress or something more serious, like an anxiety disorder. Here are four ways to help you figure out whether your stress might actually be something bigger.

You’re feeling stressed…But you aren’t sure why.

Stress and anxiety have many similar symptoms. A racing heart rate, shortness of breath, and muscle tension can be a sign of either condition. However, with stress, the root cause is clear; maybe you’re worried about a presentation you’re about to give at work, or perhaps you’re dealing with some financial or relationship problems. Stress is usually caused by an external factor that you can pinpoint.

Anxiety is caused by internal factors—it is a battle with your own mind. With anxiety, you’re not necessarily worried about a situation itself but rather how you react to it. You start to feel anxious about feeling anxious. Instead of worrying about a presentation at work, you start worrying about how you might react to your worry. Thoughts of “I’m nervous, but I’ve got this” become thoughts of “I can’t handle this.”

Anxiety can appear at any time, and it’s often irrational. Stress is rational.

When you’re feeling stressed, it’s probably for a good reason. A little bit of stress can actually be good for you. When you’re worrying about money, or you’re stressed about your work performance, you’re stressing about things that make sense. You can take steps to reduce that stress, such as saving more or asking your boss to review your work goals with you.
With anxiety, the recurring worry doesn’t make sense. You could be standing on a checkout line, or hanging out with friends, or sitting in traffic and suddenly become overwhelmed with worry. These situations are irrational, and they are internal—there is no easy solution because it’s hard to identify the exact cause of the problem.

Stress goes away, but anxiety doesn’t.

Stress ends when the stressful situation ends. If you’re stressed about your work performance and then get an awesome review, you’ll no longer be stressed. You will likely feel more confident in what you’re doing and look forward to another performance review. However, with anxiety, the worry doesn’t simply disappear. Once that stressor is gone, another one shows up. It’s a continuing cycle of worry and feeling overwhelmed. The “I can’t handle this” mentality seems like it will never go away. Even with therapy, you will still always need to practice those behavioral solutions to keep your mind from going back to the place it once was.

If you’re suffering from anxiety, treatment methods for stress won’t work.

You’ve googled “how to relieve stress” a million times, but for some reason, none of the tips and tricks are solving the problem. That could be because you’re dealing with something completely different. While stress relievers like taking a walk or meditating might reduce anxiety temporarily by helping you clear your mind, they won’t help you overcome it.

If you think you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) could help. CBT is the process of changing your way of cognitive thinking (such as your daily thoughts, attitude, and behaviors). It helps “rewire” the brain to not think so worrisomely about certain situations. For example, if you suffer from claustrophobia, then taking the elevator might seem like something you can’t handle. With CBT, you’ll learn to readjust your cognitions and think differently about small spaces. You’ll overcome that fear of feeling confined.

Talking with a therapist will help you pinpoint the trigger of your anxiety and how your brain reacts; CBT can then help you reverse those thoughts. With regular stress, CBT is not necessary, but with anxiety, it’s practically mandatory—especially if you want to avoid taking any anxiety medications. Anxiety shows itself differently in different people. Don’t assume you’re not dealing with it just because you have different symptoms than someone else.

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